A Rocky Road

I wish someone had told me when I was 20-something just how fast time passes the older we get. Then again, at that point, I had no context through which to filter that thought. When I look back at the mid-1970s, for instance, it seems that it couldn't have been 35 years ago. But obviously the numbers don't lie, and 35 years in a person's life is "a while." During those years, our nation's fisheries have endured significant changes. It was, in fact, in 1976 that the first major federal fisheries law - now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act - appeared on the books. Magnuson joined numerous other environmental laws enacted during the decade as our nation began to see the effects of rapid industrialization. (For perspective: In 1976, gas cost 59 cents a gallon, Apple Computer Company was formed and Nadia Comaneci starred in the Montreal Olympics.) To recognize Magnuson's anniversary, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries, Eric Schwaab (whose question/answer column appears in the pages of Sport Fishing each issue), wrote about the act's history and impact in a retrospective on NOAA's website. As you might expect, Schwaab writes optimistically, and I really do want to join him in that feeling. But while three decades of fisheries management have taught sweeping lessons and caused numerous high points, they have also fostered frustration, anger, illegal activity, economic hardship, impossibly complicated regulations and enforcement nightmares. What tops my list of disappointments, though, is the lack of funding Congress has been willing to grant NOAA and the lack of focus and budget NOAA has given to improving research and habitat. We see those overarching issues on the state level, too. However, when children go hungry, drugs corrupt our families and no one can afford health care, lawmakers usually blanch at spending more for fish. With limited budgets and manpower, federal and state fisheries agencies make difficult choices about how to spend their diminishing dollars. I understand those daily, in-your-face hardships. But legislators and particularly Congressmen need to realize that fish conservation and habitat protection/creation have enormous consequences on a worldwide scale and on the domestic economic front. When we mess with nature and nudge it out of balance, global consequences occur. And when fisheries dwindle, so do jobs and businesses throughout coastal regions. I am heartened by the marine businesses, industry and membership groups that have stepped up to help fill the financial gap. Some raise money to pay for stock enhancement, artificial-reef projects and even fisheries-independent research. Just as members of groups like Ducks Unlimited have rallied to purchase nesting land and protect flyways, we anglers should partner with agencies to find ways to help the resource we love. If not, three decades from now, we might find ourselves pining for 2011.